Turning the Tables | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Turning the Tables

Artist and performer Bill Shannon keeps audiences off balance

Around 11 p.m. on a snowy Tuesday night, Bill Shannon enters Ava nightclub, in East Liberty, to find images of himself flickering across a movie screen over the bar. Shannon is dressed casually and primed to hang out: His video double, meanwhile, is costumed and busy dancing.

In a hooded white jumpsuit, supported on a pair of rocker-bottomed aluminum crutches, Shannon spins in place in a busy New York City plaza. He is upright at first, but then drops to a kneeling position, still spinning, though his knees never touch the ground. Acrobatically, he tucks one crutch beneath him, leaning its armrest low on the other's shaft, and freezes in a humorously cocky pose, his face in profile and one arm crooked with the hand cradling the back of his head.

Two women watch from a distance behind him; Shannon threads his arms through each crutch for a lower grip: Crouching, he crabwalks over to them and clowns for a minute. The white hood covers his eyes, and his jaw goes slack with mindless glee. When one of the women looks away, he tugs on the hem of her coat.

In Ava, the lights are low and the music -- classic and deep house tracks from DJ Jose Moran -- overwhelmingly loud, though the place is sparsely peopled. On seeing the video of himself, Shannon collars Moran and asks him to change the video disc, a promo piece excerpting Shannon's performances from around the world.

"I don't like to compete with myself," Shannon says.

The video is swapped for footage of house dancers. On the dance floor, a slender African-American man in a ballcap works his way into a crouch and starts spinning in place. A younger white guy in a dark hoodie, rubber-limbed and acrobatic, drops into a split; the young woman with him joins in with precise, cheerleader-like moves that suggest running in place.

Shannon, who's 36, watches the dancers, claps to the music, head-bobs, dances in place. Just after midnight, he moves onto the floor.

For most of his childhood in Pittsburgh, Shannon used crutches because of a degenerative hip disease. After going without crutches for years, he needed them again starting in his 20s. Yet even having just seen him on video, it's hard to imagine him performing that way in person.

Now, his feet, relieved of his body's weight, glide; he freezes, striking some angular b-boy poses. Each of Shannon's rocker-bottomed crutches is a strut, a wand, a lever, a pivot, a wing, an inclined plane, pole vault, pommel horse. Eventually he builds to a new trick: Elevating his body to parallel with the floor, at crutch height, in a nearly 360-degree spin. The other dancers watch attentively.

Shannon moved to New York to make his name, both as a street dancer known as Crutchmaster and as a performer and choreographer who -- sometimes on a skateboard as well as crutches -- combined a new style of movement with an artistry that piquantly questions the relationships between street and stage, audience and performer. Sometimes he erases such distinctions entirely, especially in street performances that have grown increasingly adventuresome.

Last year, at a peak of his career, Shannon quietly moved back to Pittsburgh to raise his family. But it wasn't until November, when Moran launched his weekly This Old House party at Ava, that Shannon found somewhere to enjoy the sounds he loves. "This is where I chill out," he says.

On some days, Shannon is incapacitated by pain, and he needs the crutches if he's on his feet for more than a few minutes at a time. But they also permit him to do things a crutchless person couldn't, so that his performances blur the lines between what it means to be able and disabled. His work embodies other paradoxes as well. Shannon is in competition with an image of himself: the center of attention who often feels invisible behind the crutches that have symbolized his career. He struggles not so much with his disability as with the way other people think it defines him.

Or as Shannon puts it, "I'm an artist trapped in a human-interest story."

In New York City, a town where nobody looks at anything twice, Shannon harvests stares. He's the only guy rolling down Chelsea sidewalks on a skateboard with crutches.

He is of medium height and medium build (though he's gained a few pounds since moving from flat Brooklyn to hilly Pittsburgh, where he skateboards less). He has dark, unruly hair, soft brown eyes and a scruffy goatee that seems to come and go weekly. Seated, he talks with his hands and rarely even shifts his legs. In motion, especially on wheels and propelling himself with rhythmic sweeps of his crutches, he combines a surfer's grace with a skateboarder's knowing navigation of concrete -- hopping curbs, cutting around steam grates, slipping between wheel-less, gawking bipeds.

It's mid-March, and Shannon is in New York to rehearse his show Sketchy with many of the same dancers who performed in its 2004 premiere. The show, which toured the U.K., is headed back overseas in late March and early April: Shannon will perform two nights in Maubeuge, France, and three at the prestigious Kaaitheater, in Brussels.

Living in Stanton Heights with his partner and manager, Leah Lizarondo, and their two young children, hasn't slowed Shannon professionally. Before crossing the pond, he'll debut a new video installation at a Washington, D.C. gallery; later in April, he visits Scotland as an arts-conference panelist, and to work on a dance-film project. In May, he performs solo at Breakin' Convention, a hip-hop dance-theater festival in London.

In the early '90s, Shannon was part of Pittsburgh's vibrant underground art scene, but since leaving, he's rarely performed here. His most recent local gig was the 2004 Three Rivers Arts Festival, during which he performed a series of improvised street shows.

Outside Pittsburgh, though, he has been prolific. Shannon has performed in group and solo stage shows, street performances and installations around the world: Jordan, Russia, Finland and Australia. In 2003, videos by Shannon were featured in Art, Lies and Videotape, a group show at the Tate Liverpool that included work by Diane Arbus and Yoko Ono.

Shannon's New York stage career had taken off starting in 1999, when prominent dance-world producer, consultant and publicist Janet Stapleton became his manager. "She basically forced me to be more responsible," he says.

But perhaps Shannon's highest-profile gig wasn't even his own performance. In 2001, he joined the creative team for the Cirque du Soleil show that became Varekai. He choreographed two acts for the world-renowned Montreal-based theatrical circus: an aerial duet, and a solo dance on crutches for the Russian tumbler Vladimir Ignatenkov.

Working with British acrobats Andrew and Kevin Atherton, Shannon spiced the Cirque's overwhelmingly modernist aesthetic with something street. Over the twin brothers' protests (documented in The Fire Within, the cable-TV series about Varekai), he got them to forgo pointed toes and lifted chins for the right-angled limbs of skateboard aerials (and, as Shannon points out, of Celtic and ancient Egyptian art). The finished act, with the brothers swinging and soaring on straps, was a hit (Varekai played Pittsburgh in 2005).

Throughout his career, Shannon's press coverage has been favorable. In 2001, Dance Magazine put him on its "25 to Watch" list. "Dancing on futuristic steel [sic] crutches with curved bases, Shannon is a beautiful alien creature gliding through space in loping strides," wrote Sally Sommer. "Through his dancing Shannon forces you to look at life afresh, to see movement with clear vision."

Critics admiringly note how his public-space shows interrogate standard notions of both "disability" and "audience." And his desire to evoke ideas and emotions through movement means Shannon gets more comparisons to Chaplin than to breakdancing crews.

"He's never content with what he has and how audiences react to him," says Nolini Barretto, who curates and produces the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Sitelines Festival of site-specific public art. In September, the Council is funding "Traffic," a production Shannon premiered last year in Chicago, where he skateboarded down live city streets, the audience trailing in a bus. "He's always trying to push the experience people can have and how he can jolt them a little bit."

Even so, Shannon is sensitive to commentators who view street dance as inferior to ballet and modern dance -- or who just don't get it. And it chafes that his crutches often attract more attention than he does.

In a 2003 review for The Nation, for example, Ginger Danto described Shannon's crutches as "compliant props in a partnered dance[;] a la Fred Astaire with a coat rack, they take on a magic life of their own."

Even in the freestyle world of street dance, crutch-dancers are rare. (Another is Germany's Dergin Tokmak, a friend and sometime collaborator of Shannon's who is currently doing the crutch solo in Varekai.) And Shannon says the Varekai show was the first time he felt artistically validated -- valued for his skills, rather than as the "crutch guy."

It annoys him how often writers say that he's been on crutches "since childhood," though he unfailingly tells them otherwise. He frequently quotes a brief, largely admiring 2003 Village Voice review in which prominent New York-based dance writer Tobi Tobias wrote that Shannon had "turned his condition into a means of making a spectacle of himself."

When he read that, says Shannon, "I was just shocked, and really angry, too." His condition, rather than his creativity, seemed to be getting credit for the work. It felt as though he were at once being praised and made to disappear.

Shannon got used to attention at an early age. When he was 5 -- shortly after he was fitted with a leg brace and crutches as treatment for Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease -- he was an Easter Seals poster child in Nashville, where he was born.

His mother, Randa, was a nurse, but she had never heard of Legg-Calvé, which affects one in 1,200 with a softening of the femur where it fits the hip joint. She simply started noticing 4-year-old Bill favoring his left leg when he'd play hard.

In 1976, his parents -- civil-rights and peace activists -- moved the family to more politically progressive Pittsburgh. They lived in Highland Park. When her oldest son enrolled in school, Randa Shannon made sure he didn't end up "in the basement" with other disabled kids.

On crutches, Bill stood out. His disability, says his younger brother, Ben, "was a performance at some level. People reacted to him immediately when he walked into a room." But he also fit in. "The [other] kids were great," Randa Shannon recalls of Bill's years at Fulton Elementary. "They helped him, they carried stuff for him."

Still, he was hardly passive. He played outdoors with Ben and other kids. Neighbors called Randa and told her, "You know your kid was jumping off the wall and swinging from the tree, with these crutches." He played soccer; his parents took him hiking in Ohiopyle. Ben remembers he and Bill breaking the lock on his leg brace so they could play king of the hill. When kids went vaulting bushes, his older brother couldn't, Ben recalls. Instead, "Bill would run through the bushes."

Legg-Calvé runs its course by adolescence, and Shannon was off crutches at 11. But a year or so later, in a rare occurrence, the disease afflicted his other hip, putting him back on crutches for another year. After that, he'd go crutchless until he was in his 20s.

It was in adolescence, though, that Shannon and his younger brother discovered breakdancing. Shannon, then attending Reizenstein Middle School, says he witnessed his first breakdancing circle, or cipher, at the old Kingsley Association community center, on East Liberty's Penn Circle. "When I saw real dancing, I was just like, 'Wow, that's incredible.' It made me want to do it."

While Ben did breaking's acrobatic "power moves," Bill kept the pressure off his still-tender hips by specializing in smooth techniques like popping -- machine-like isolations of body parts -- and locking, which suggests waves of energy flowing through the dancer's undulating limbs and torso. Typically, the Shannon brothers were the only white kids breaking when someone laid down a scrap of cardboard at community parties in Westinghouse Park and Highland Park.

Randa Shannon remembers her sons competing in a talent show at Beaver High School, which they attended after she and her husband, Randolph, divorced and he moved to Beaver. On stage, 14-year-old Bill and 12-year-old Ben wore matching blue and black outfits, with berets. When Bill did a "moonwalk and sort of a shimmy thing, all these girls went aaaaaaah," she says. "They're like holding their hearts and screaming. It was hilarious."

Within a couple years, skateboarding became as all-consuming for the brothers as breaking had been. While Shannon -- who also attended Peabody High -- was off crutches, he avoided the big jumps Ben did. Instead, he executed a slalom-like "carving" style that was retro by then, but that was also easier on the joints. Even so, four polyurethane wheels gave him a new kind of mobility. "You could turn yourself into liquid and make yourself glide," says Ben Shannon. "You could spin yourself like a top."

Breaking and skating share an ethos of "fall down, try again," as well as an outsider ethos: Brian Cummings, a member of the skate crew that roamed Oakland and Downtown, happily shows video of a long-haired, 18-year-old Shannon getting arrested on a Squirrel Hill sidewalk during a 1988 demonstration against a proposed city skateboarding ban. But racially and otherwise, the two worlds were pretty distinct. Breaking arose in New York's black and Latino neighborhoods, while skating was a street-kid outgrowth of Southern California surfer culture. Cummings says he knew Shannon for a year before he ever saw him do "that kind of robot thing."

In the early '90s --after an abortive term studying metal craft at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology -- Shannon shared studio space with the other squatters in the South Side's Brew House complex, and performed with pioneering spoken-word crew the Scratch Poets. Video of a Shannon performance piece -- a commentary on the Gulf War against former U.S. ally Saddam Hussein -- depicts a white-suited Shannon, in dreadlocks, standing on a slag heap on crutches and telling a jack-in-the-box, "I'm only doing this because I love you" before flogging it with a rubber hose. Some dancing follows.

Musician and artist Evan Knauer vividly recalls a performance at the Turmoil Room, a now-legendary storefront art space in Wilkinsburg. Shannon, then an unknown to the audience, stood on crutches and captivated it with a story about losing the ability to walk. "No one was even going to the keg to get more beer," says Knauer. "Just when you were just about to cry ... he threw away the crutches and did a little jig, then he said, 'Ah, gotcha!'

"I thought it was all a lie," says Knauer today. "I thought it was all a performance."

Today, Shannon says he performed with crutches even when he didn't need them because "[t]hey were like an icon from my life."

Pittsburgh was where Shannon's artistic identity formed, but he speaks of the four years he spent attending the Art Institute of Chicago as an epiphany. With his hips worsening from the after-affects of Legg-Calvé, a friend gave him his first rocker-bottom crutches. Shannon found this style of crutch -- versions of which were created for therapeutic reasons in the 1910s -- more versatile than traditional single-point models. They also complemented skateboarding. "I realized I wasn't skating," he says. "I was dancing on crutches."

(These days, to take the pounding he administers, Shannon's crutches are made of aircraft-grade aluminum, with a high-pressure fuel hose encasing the U-shaped rocker for traction and wear. The armpit saddles are made of wood -- more durable than plastic -- with electrical tape on the handholds for a sure grip.)

Flat, sprawling Chicago was perfect for Shannon's slalom style. "It was magic. Everyone in Chicago knew me." Bus-tour guides pointed him out as local color.

Even so, Shannon grew more conscious of his identity as a disabled person. He's named one phenomenon "the condition arriving": the way his own crutches blotted him out.

"People are more concerned with their idea of what the condition is than [with] my needs," he says. All those people saying "sorry" when they passed him, or trying to help when he didn't need it -- even those who thought his abilities meant he was faking his disabilities. "People think, 'Oh, he's a disabled artist.' But for the disabled community, I'm not really disabled enough," he says. "I'm in between."

In Chicago, he says, "I realized there was no way I could control people seeing me as representing failure." Instead, he decided to represent it on purpose, and then play with the representation.

Shannon developed the first version of his street performance "Regarding the Fall." In it, he feigns helplessness for unsuspecting passersby -- say, by toppling into a heap of garbage bags -- while secretly videotaping it all for playback and commentary for a live audience. Often, Shannon points out, people who try to help him actually hinder his motions. Sometimes, he winds up helping them help him.

"Regarding the Fall" can vividly alter views of the disabled ... and destabilize the role of audience and performer, writes Petra Kuppers, a performance-studies scholar at Rhode Island's Bryant College, in her 2003 book Disability and Contemporary Performance. "Shannon's presence on the street is the presence of an anthropologist, a reader, an analyst," she argues. He plays the part of "a host whose performances [reveal] subconscious social scripts."

Shannon, who had been winning grant money since his Pittsburgh days, performed nationally even as an Art Institute student. One piece, at a Cleveland festival, started with Shannon in a cocoon. The audience helped him tear free of it. His family participated, with music by his brother's rock band.

"I thought it was just an incredible form of therapy," says Ben Shannon, now an English teacher at Shaler High School, of his brother's show. "It was almost like I was getting to know him and know his struggles, with who he was and who he was becoming."

Chelsea Studios occupies the sixth and seventh floors of a building on Manhattan's West 26th Street. Early on a Monday in March, its carpeted waiting area, a long hallway and a dozen mirrored, hardwood-floored rooms are filled with hundreds of young show-business hopefuls. They're mostly women, thin and fluffed and white, waiting to audition for shows like The Wedding Singer, the Broadway musical based on the Adam Sandler movie.

At 9 a.m. comes a bustle from the elevators: In walks a multi-ethnic knot of guys dressed in dark jackets and hoodies, dark glasses, three-day beards, ballcaps precisely askew. Some carry skateboards, or big metal cases of DJ gear. One of them is on silver crutches.

Shannon met members of the Step Fenz dance crew in his early days in New York, a decade ago. They're now his regulars for group shows such as Sketchy, for which he's booked two 10-hour rehearsal days at Chelsea Studios before the European gigs. Looking relaxed -- Sketchy's been staged some 15 times -- the dancers fan out to limber up in their own spacious, day-lit rehearsal room, while the hallway teems with Broadway aspirants.

Like Shannon -- who's never taken a dance class -- most of the Fenz (feens) have no formal training. But unlike most street and club dancers, they're all full-time professionals, veterans ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-30s. For instance, Bronx-born Dave Fogler, who goes by "Cyclone" (he specializes in headspins), has danced on Vegas stages, in a video for rapper Jay-Z and in concert with British band Jamiroquai. While the show's technical crew -- which includes two Pittsburghers, lighting designer Bob Steineck and costumer Joanna Obuzor -- call Shannon "Bill," the Fenz all call him "Crutch." It's short for "Crutchmaster," the handle he used as a New York street dancer.

Hip-hop dance theater is a relatively recent development; pioneers such as Philadelphia-based Rennie Harris first brought street styles to traditional stages about 15 years ago. But Shannon is less interested in preserving hip hop's roots than he is in self-expression, and even questioning whether street styles translate to stage.

Sketchy's title refers to the tenuousness of that translation, and the Fenz, along with a DJ named Excess, are the simpatico performers Shannon needs. As nonpurists -- their signature style, "Zoo Fu," mixes various New York styles with martial-arts moves -- the Fenz can have fun with the show's parodies of retro moves, while at the same time appreciating its attempts to create new forms.

Street dance happens inside a cipher, in brief, frenetic displays of skill. The shows preferred by arts presenters and funders, meanwhile, are evening-length and presented on proscenium stages, with dancers facing the audience. And though modern-dance fans and the street-dance aficionados might mingle at Shannon's shows, they have divergent expectations that are hard to please all at once.

Sometimes the performers themselves aren't on the same page with Shannon's efforts to create a narrative arc and emotional depth. "I've fired dancers because they don't want to take any risks," he says. "'Crutch, this slow-motion part is lasting too long -- let's throw in a power move.'"

Sketchy's premise is that you can't translate street dance to the stage; its essence vanishes. With rapid, humorous patter -- and abetted by projected video, including slick motion-capture playback software -- Shannon narrates a sardonic tour through classic b-boy styles, contemporary "eight-counts" (think "MTV backup dancers") and comical attempts to fuse street styles with modern and classical dance. But Sketchy also includes the dreamily flowing "Dead Man" -- a single motion, slowed down and repeated, performed by an ensemble -- and "Crutch Tech," in which the Fenz mirror a Shannon solo, but without crutches, to highlight his style. There's also "Attempts," in which each dancer tries, and sometimes fails, to pull off an especially tough move.

Sketchy concludes with the dancers forming a cipher and each soloing inside it -- consciously excluding the audience.

The rehearsals are democratic, with dancers largely choreographing themselves in the Chelsea space. There are some stunning acrobatics, like Danny Rodriguez's spinning, flare-legged handstands. Cricket, a renowned performer new to the troupe, shows off a superhuman move: He lies on his back, knees bent, grabs his ankles, then repeatedly pops into the air like a droplet on a hot griddle -- all while flipping over, each time landing softly on his back.

The Fenz (who include one female member, Erika Sato) also love to watch Shannon dance. "The first time I saw Bill, I was like [his jaw drops] -- I can't believe someone is doing this right now," says Rodriguez, a tattooed, 25-year-old ex-Marine from Long Island who dances as Danny Infamz.

"It's inspiring and fucking dope at the same time," says Cricket, who was a founding member of Rennie Harris's troupe. "He's thinking way outside the box of ways to look at theater. He puts it under the microscope."

Emanuel Vega, 28, who goes by Wild Child, says Shannon's shows give him more room to create than any other paying gig. Vega's credits include a video for the Fallout Boyz, and backing up singer Faith Evans at the Essence Awards. "That's not the grand stuff. The grand stuff is Bill Shannon," says Vega. "I'm not even a dick-rider or nothin' like that. He gave me my freedom."

You can watch Shannon perform anytime you like. He's a YouTube celebrity, with numerous videos online, including excerpts from an in-progress feature-length documentary.

But as a performer, Shannon's first love remains the street, with all its unpredictability. "You don't know when a dog's gonna start barking at you, when a kid's gonna laugh at you at the same time," he says. "You have to really listen, put your ear to the ground with audience, make sure you're giving them something to hold onto."

At the 2004 Three Rivers Arts Festival, he enjoyed his series of turn-up-and-play improvisations, which took place at locations including the fountain at Point State Park. TRAF executive director Elizabeth Reiss says observers included plenty of people who didn't even know they were watching a show. But Shannon made it work: "He really charms the audience," says Reiss.

Still, there are challenges in being a multidisciplinary artist who performs in public spaces. Some are financial: Funders prefer theaters with roofs and ticketed audiences; sponsors want someplace to put logos. Meanwhile, individual artists are finding it harder to get grants these days, which is why Shannon is contemplating starting his own nonprofit arts group in Pittsburgh.

Other problems are conceptual. When an audience gathers around a street performer, it disrupts the web of activity that made the street interesting to begin with. "I want to give the audience my street," Shannon says, "not the street I blew up with this big audience."

Last April, in Chicago, Shannon debuted "Traffic," a 45-minute improvisation in which Shannon skateboarded down Michigan Avenue just after rush hour, while the audience followed discreetly in a charter bus outfitted with video monitors wired to cameras pointed out the windows, to capture him wherever he went. Also on board was DJ Excess, providing beats for both Shannon and the audience, which in turn could hear Shannon's commentary through a wireless microphone.

According to a Chicago Tribune account, "Traffic" let the audience of 45 watch Shannon interact with the built environment -- hugging a wall, for instance, or chatting up "visibly bewildered passersby."

"Bill was really open to just engaging the street according to what the day was like," says Yolanda Cursack, of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, which presented "Traffic." The show was part of Bodies of Work: The Chicago Festival of Disability Arts and Culture. But Cursack places it in a larger artistic context. "His work is completely original," she says. "It really comes out of the hip-hop idea of mixing beats with dance and with the urban environment."

Producing "Traffic" was neither cheap -- around $20,000 for three performances -- nor easy, requiring police cooperation and a skillful bus driver. And ticket sales were necessarily limited. But Cursack says it was a better showcase for Shannon's talents than are his stage shows, which she calls "dated" because they remain staged street dance, no matter how Shannon tries to deconstruct the idea.

Shannon's forte, she says, lies in activating the traditional passive audience. "I think Bill's approach to the audience is he wants them to feel like they're part of the experience. ... He's kind of recruiting them as performers, to an extent."

Shannon has already added installation art to the unassuming neighborhood of Stanton Heights. The metal rail of his small front porch is crazily woven with dozens of flexible, yard-long cylinders of slate-gray polyurethane. He rescued the material from a Dumpster; it now suggests an expatriate colony of unruly sea anemones.

Shannon lives here with his partner and manager, Leah Lizarondo; their son, Arto, 2; and a six-month-old daughter, Rio. Lizarondo, who's 34, is a petite, businesslike Filipino native and a former product manager for Colgate-Palmolive. She and Shannon met in New York 2003 -- after she had attended graduate school at Carnegie Mellon, ironically.

In Brooklyn, Shannon and Lizarondo lived in a converted firehouse whose tenants included a woodworking shop whose fumes permeated the flat. They decided they didn't want to raise Arto there, and now they live not far from where Shannon grew up. His brother, Ben, lives in Highland Park with his family; their mother, Randa, is a co-owner of the organic urban farm Mildred's Daughters, which is visible from Shannon's yard. "My kids get to run out and feed the chickens every day," he says.

Shannon had realized he no longer needed to live in New York to have a career. He'd made his name, and his contacts; the Internet lets he and Lizarondo take care of the rest. Besides, he felt that in recent years New York had gotten so pricey that it wasn't the artistic mecca it used to be.

Pittsburgh, too, has gentrified some; the slag heaps where Shannon once accosted a jack-in-the-box are now blanketed in tract housing. But Shannon says his old hometown retains the agreeable grit New York lost. "Pittsburgh is a treasure," he says.

He'd like to perform here. He says he turned down a gig at First Night (Downtown's New Year's Eve festival) because he wanted something splashier. He doubts there's a local audience for Sketchy -- "people who pay 30 bucks to go see a street-dance theater piece." But he thinks "Traffic" might attract interest. And Three Rivers Arts Festival head Reiss confirms they're discussing some street shows during the festival, in June.

Meanwhile, Shannon has been working on a multimedia piece called The Invisible Man Epilogue Remix 2007, for a Washington, D.C. gallery. Like H.G. Wells' Invisible Man, the character in Shannon's video installation is bandaged, though now he's a "burn-unit escapee." And like the title character of Ralph Ellison's classic 1952 novel Invisible Man, he is "socially invisible."

"I watch my condition cast a shadow across any attempt to speak and be heard," runs a line from a proposed monologue. Shannon portrays both the bandaged figure and a videotaped dancer on crutches; during the performance, the bandaged man will use the video to illustrate his own condition.

Wells' Invisible Man went murderously mad; Shannon blames it on the character's doomed attempts to return to normalcy. In a proposal for the piece, Shannon writes that his work "shows how madness can be averted by hosting the gaze rather than being subject to it." Or, as Shannon says in real life, "In my work I've entertained the notion that normalcy is not always the best option."